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Why do we close read books?

This question has been haunting my English seminar class.  We are currently discussing Huck Finn in relation to this question.  After exploring the question of “who is Huck Finn?” by close reading passages from the novel, we inevitability fell into the ‘why does it matter’ conversation.  One of my classmates called it the english-major-crisis-of-faith.  Which it was.  If a symbol or connection was not intended by the author and readers pick up on it, is the reader wrong?  Does authorial intent matter?

Why should I close read Huck Finn?  My thoughts about this are simple: to understand it better.  There are always layers to a book and to a character, as there are with people.  The closer you look and more time you spend getting to know them in detail, the deeper you can understand and appreciate them.

It reminds me of how I really disliked one of my current best friends when I first met her.  Upon first interacting with her I identified her as a crazy type-A personality.  We completely clashed.  The more time I spent with her and thought about why she did the things she did, I could tell all of it came straight from her heart.  I love her now, but not when I first met her.  It was only through increased interactions with her did I see her awesomeness.

I find I have similar experiences with characters in books or books in general.  I usually don’t like them that much when I first read them.  Through discussion and consequently increased time spent thinking about them, I find I can get a better understanding of the characters or book in general.  That “better understanding” usually goes hand in hand with appreciation of the work and eventually liking it too.

If I like, appreciate, or understand a novel for reasons unintended by the author, I tend to agree with John Green—“I still win”.  If I can be a more productive member of society and benefit others from what I learned by close reading a novel, that’s great.  This scenario could play itself out in various ways, for example applying the discipline of persistence and analyzing texts closely to a job you get or learning to love a friend.  Practicing close reading is therefore akin to my definition of a good and thoughtful life.   It sows the seeds for a deeper understanding and appreciation of books and by extension other situations in your life.